Learn English: anything else is a hobby

I’ve probably written about this before, but this tweet reminded me of one of my pet peeves.

My first response was, well, yes: all those non-English speakers are learning English. To which the author’s response was:

So non-native English speakers learn non-English foreign languages at approximately the rate Americans do. In short, only about 20-30% of any country bothers learning a non-English foreign language.

A lot of polyglots like to get all high and mighty about Brits and Americans not speaking foreign languages, but for non-English speakers learning English is an obvious choice with benefits which can be realised immediately. But what foreign language should a Brit or American choose to learn? The answer isn’t so obvious, and I put the question to my interlocutor:

Well, I’m a Brit and I confess it’s not immediately obvious to me I should learn Chinese I assume he means Mandarin). At least, not in the way it’s immediately obvious a Norwegian or Lithuanian should learn English. And the fact he’s listed four languages suggests the choice isn’t all that obvious, doesn’t it? I mean, you spend a few thousand hours learning Spanish and then what? You go on holiday?

And here’s the thing: people (including Mr Christensen) think being able to speak a foreign language opens doors for business and employment to a far greater degree than it does. For example, I know a Turkish lady who went to China in 1997 and learned Mandarin, and it was very useful because at that time few people spoke English. But within a decade anyone doing international business spoke English, and now it’s not really an advantage except for social occasions and practical, day-to-day living. The Turkish lady eventually left China and now works in France, where her Mandarin is utterly useless save for a few comical occasions when she meets Chinese on the street. She is now struggling to learn French, but what really matters is she speaks and writes English to full professional fluency. That is what her employers are interested in, as well as her professional skills. I know another woman, an American, who is fluent in English, French, Mandarin, and Russian. Sure, she has certain advantages when she’s actually in France, China, or Russia but she struggles for work because her professional CV isn’t very strong. Employers would rather hire an an expert who only knows English than someone with a weak CV who speaks a dozen languages. In my own case, my erstwhile multinational employer was not in the slightest bit interested that I spoke Russian: when I tried to invoke it to get assigned to Russian projects, nobody was interested.

Those who think Americans or Brits learning a foreign language will give them some sort of business or economic advantage have no idea what they’re talking about (Christensen is a professor of journalism). If you want to do business with the Chinese as a foreigner, you’re better off improving your product or service such that they want to buy it rather than wasting hours learning Mandarin. Now if you want to live in a particular country and get among the local culture, learning a language is highly recommended if not essential. But please, enough of this sneering at native English speakers for not learning foreign languages: take English out of the equation and hardly anyone else learns foreign languages either, and when they do it’s basically a hobby.

Finally, I’ve noticed a lot of the sneering comes from polyglots who were gifted languages as a child, either from a foreign parent, going to school abroad, or by growing up in a country where a second language is learned from birth by default. Those who’ve learned a foreign language as an adult tend not to pass remarks on the subject, much less sneer at those who haven’t.


Italian, but not as we know it

From the comments at Tim Worstall’s:

I think I’ve said this here before, my late missus (pbuh), although Austrian was born in Italy and used to say to me:

“You lot might well poke fun at Mussolini for making the trains run on time, but he did one important thing. He made all Italians learn to speak Italian.”

(she had a very posh Milanese accent, waiters in UK Italian restaurants – who are all southerners – leapt to attention when she spoke )

This reminds me of a story I like to tell occasionally. Around 2001 I was in an Italian restaurant in Warrington at a leaving do for a colleague in the engineering consultancy I was working for at the time. The restaurant was staffed by charismatic dark-skinned chaps dressed in waistcoats who would pay particular attention to any ladies who happened to be dining. There were lots of theatrical arm movements and plenty of mama mias in between strings of Italian phrases, giving the place an authentic feel.

Now we had a colleague, a very bright young woman called Barbara who was about four feet tall if stood on a box, and she happened to be Italian. Her idea of being on time was to turn up about half an hour late, so we were all sat down having placed our orders when she walked in. Cue lots of mama mias and other snippets of Italian as she was shown to our table and handed a menu. She read the selection for a minute or two then turned to the waiter and let loose a full sentence or two of Italian.

There was a pause.

The waiter looked at his colleague, who looked at Barbara and shrugged.

There was another pause.

Finally the waiter leaned forward and whispered in Barbara’s ear: “Sorry, we’re from Turkey.”


Standards don’t matter until I need them

This is rather amusing. A few months back I had this exchange with Peter Hitchens and Oliver Kamm on Twitter, which I wrote about here:

So, Hitchens endorses Kamm’s view. Okay, good. This was Hitchens yesterday:

Suddenly the meaning of words is important. I challenged Hitchens on this, and he responded:

What’s that phrase? Everyone’s a liberal, except on the things they care about?

Kamm’s argument is that style guides should be ignored because people are free to write however they want as, strictly speaking, provided a word is understood it is by default correct. So if I want to use imply and infer interchangeably, there’s no problem because everyone knows what I mean. Uh-huh.

Personally, I see style guides as being similar to conventions on dress. There is no reason why anyone should wear a shirt and tie to a formal occasion, and there is certainly no approved body laying down standards, but for some reason we all agree that coming to a wedding in jeans and a t-shirt isn’t the done thing. Or course we can ignore the many sources of advice on how to dress and laugh at the absurdity of it but, if you really want that job, it’s probably a good idea to make yourself look smart. From what I can tell, Kamm’s advice on writing is the equivalent of telling the plebs to walk around in beachwear (while making damned sure, I’ll wager, that his own kids attend interviews in a suit and tie just as he always did). Amusingly Hitchens appears to have endorsed this view, only is now upset someone has rocked up to his wedding in a tracksuit.


Language Tree

This is very nice indeed:

Basque is missing – it should be another offshoot like the Uralic languages – and I was also interested to learn that Georgian isn’t an Indo-European language, so doesn’t appear either.



More on Gendered Pronouns

I’ve written before about gendered pronouns:

The supposed problem is that the use of “he” or “she” infers sexual attributes to the person in question which they might not like, but this might have more to do with the nature of English grammar than a desire on the part of an ancient system of Patriarchy to impose their characterisations on unwilling recipients.

My guess would be that this is being driven by people who, not having the first clue about languages (including their own), are basing their entire objections on an implication that simply isn’t there.

Commenter dearieme said something similar recently at Tim Worstall’s:

When I was a boy the singular gender-neutral pronouns were he, him, his. The notion that the referent of he, him, his must be male is a modern fallacy, originally American of course.

One only needs to look at how we refer to animals to see that often gendered terms can be gender neutral. We go to feed the ducks even if there are drakes present. We point to a herd of cows even if they’re actually bullocks. A flock of sheep may well contain a ram, but we don’t nit-pick. A herd of deer probably has does mixed in, and a pride of lions usually includes a few lionesses.

It might be time for the post-modern grammar experts at The Times to come out in defence of he, him, and his.


Grammatical Nonsense

If there’s one thing more irritating than grammar snobs, it’s counter-snobs who spout nonsense that’s equally puerile. For example:

I’ve not read the book in question, but I’ve seen the sentiments echoed a number of times on Twitter: if something is understandable it is therefore correct, especially so if lots of people speak or write in this way.

One of the things I noticed when learning Russian is how easily you can get by without articles, i.e “a” and “the”. Russian doesn’t have them and, seemingly, doesn’t need them. When Russians speak English they often get confused by the articles and leave them out altogether, sounding like the meerkats on Compare the Market adverts:

“I sit at table, ashtray is full, I use cup instead and drink beer straight from bottle. When bottle is finished I go to toilet.”

If Oliver Kamm’s logic is consistent, this ought to be correct English: it is perfectly understandable. But according to Hitchens this isn’t the case because:

Apparently, the correctness of English depends on who is saying it. But read the sentence in Russian-English in a Yorkshire accent and you’re not far off native English. Native English varies wildly, and includes Indian. If we’re to assume that “if its meaning is clear, it is good English”, then the concept of good English is basically meaningless: I can understand English when spoken with a 10% accuracy.

What’s amusing is the people who push this sort of thing are the types who usually boast they know additional languages (almost always a Latin-based European one, though: it’s never Turkish or Korean). These pompous arses wouldn’t dare suggest that one could say la chat, but they think “implies” is the same as “infers” because the mistake is made often and appeared in ancient literature. Perhaps no French speaker says la chat, but plenty of Russian speakers abandon the genders and say xoroshiy pogoda, usually Central Asians. Thankfully Russians, sensible folk, don’t write books saying it’s correct and encouraging it.

The whole thing is a sort of reverse-snobbery, whereby posh Oxbridge types in London embrace the quirks of the masses while speaking with a plum in their throat themselves. For all the “you decide what words mean” nonsense peddled by Kamm, you can be sure anyone following his advice when applying for a job alongside him at The Times wouldn’t get very far, and he’d never write in such a manner himself. But then, I’ve written about the quality of his professional advice before.

A cynic might suggest they’re deliberately dishing out poor advice to protect their own cushy positions.


How useful is a foreign language?

Via Tim Worstall, this letter in The Guardian:

It was inspirational to read John le Carré’s timely piece on “Why we should learn German” (News). Through his personal narrative about learning German, he encapsulates so eloquently all the key motivations for learning languages: access to other cultures; curiosity about the structure of language; the ability to engage in meaningful dialogue with crucial political and trading partners.

The letter is written by a professor of modern languages, and it shows. In my experience, knowledge of a foreign language is one of the most overrated skills one is encouraged to acquire – unless it is English. It is ironic that it’s the monoglot UK which pushes this line, perhaps because those doing the pushing are unaware of the limitations. For instance, how much “meaningful dialogue with crucial political and trading partners” has a professor of modern languages at the University of Belfast engaged in?

It is true that knowing a foreign language can build strong relationships and help greatly in understanding and learning about other cultures. But if this is a reason for Brits to learn Spanish, why is it not also the case for Germans, say? Why does everyone else get to learn English and stop there, uninterested in going any further? If Brits are being told they will struggle abroad, how does everyone else manage with just English and their (locally useless) native tongue?

The answer is that once you know English, you can do 90% of what you need; if that weren’t the case you’d see foreigners desperately trying to learn third and fourth languages, and generally you don’t. Once you know English, your time is better off spent learning something else.

I am far from fluent in Russian, but I can get by pretty well, especially in a social environment. When it comes to business my vocabulary lets me down, but I could learn it if I had an incentive. The trouble is, I don’t. Russian was incredibly useful when living in Russia but largely useless once I left. Sure, it is great to be able to go on the lash with a load of Russians (as I did in Baden-Baden two weeks ago) and not feel left out and learning about Russian history and culture simultaneously with the language was very rewarding in itself, but professionally it has been useless. The truth is, nobody is interested in whether I speak Russian, and this was the case even when I worked there. I have seen colleagues assigned to Russia and Azerbaijan and been utterly lost from Day 1, but never has their lack of language skills been a concern, and never has my language skill been seen as a reason to involve me in something. At best, my being able to speak Russian is seen as a mildly interesting piece of trivia, nothing more.

I believe that even if I were fluent this would be the case. From what I have seen, abilities in languages other than English are simply not rated highly by corporate managers and HR people, and come a long way down the list behind obedience, conformity, compliance, and simply having a face that fits. I know people fluent in languages working in giant multinational companies whose language skills lie idle, useful only when socialising or in the occasional restaurant. I have a friend in Paris who is fluent in English and also speaks Mandarin. She found Mandarin very useful in China, but since moving to Paris it simply isn’t required. Her employer, a huge multinational, is interested in her MBA and professional experience, not her language skills (other than English, of course).

Contrary to what the professor says, languages other than English are only mildly useful in the business world – everything gets done in English as soon as foreigners are involved. That’s not to say learning a language isn’t useful and rewarding, but the idea that doors will fly open as companies desperately seek to employ polyglot Englishmen is nonsense.

As is this, in my opinion:

These are precisely the reasons why languages matter so much to our future: they are crucial for building deep relationships across cultural differences, both globally and in communities around the UK, relationships that are game-changers for business, security and peace in an interconnected world.

Now obviously this professor is talking his own book, but learning a language is often a necessary but not sufficient step to building relationships with foreigners. In some instances, such as with Russians, the language isn’t even necessary. In my experience, Russians tend to get you blind drunk early on and “see what sort of a person you are” before trusting you with friendship. Although speaking their language certainly helps, your character is a lot more important. Turning up in Russia fluent but a slimy, untrustworthy prick isn’t going to get you far, and a monoglot foreigner they actually like will do a lot better.

I have known several expats here in France who believed the only thing preventing them being accepted into French social circles was the language barrier. A decade later they’re fluent, but still waiting for the dinner invitations. Shared culture and character are often far more important when building relations with foreigners than mere language skills.

Conclusive proof comes by looking at which nationalities do well internationally and establish business, cultural, and social relationships everywhere they go. Is it the famously multilingual Dutch, Danes, and Norwegians? Is it the serious dual-language Germans or Swedes? What about the sociable Spanish or Italians? No, it’s the hopelessly monolingual Americans and Brits. If knowledge of foreign languages is a key requirement in conquering the world commercially and culturally, nobody thought to tell the Anglo-Saxons.

My advice would be to encourage people to decide first which cultures they want to learn more about and which countries they want to live in, and start learning the languages that will help them with that. It probably won’t help their careers much, but it will make their cultural experience far deeper, more rewarding, and longer lasting. But the idea that “a step-change in the UK’s national capacity in modern languages” is required is laughable. The time and money would be better spent acquiring skills people want to pay for.


Gendered Pronouns

There’s a post over at Samizdata on the subject of gendered pronouns. It talks about the apparent problem of some men and women not wanting to be referred to as “he” or “she”, and yet another problem whereby some people object to a third person of unknown sex being automatically referred to as “he”. Hence, apparently, there is a need for a gender-neutral third person pronoun. I should point out that Natalie Solent, the author of the Samizdata piece, is merely discussing the issue and groping around for a possible solution rather than demanding something be done, but I’ll weigh in nonetheless.

The first thing that occurs to me is that, as with so many other present-day crises, this is something that appears to be limited to the English-speaking world. The supposed problem is that the use of “he” or “she” infers sexual attributes to the person in question which they might not like, but this might have more to do with the nature of English grammar than a desire on the part of an ancient system of Patriarchy to impose their characterisations on unwilling recipients.

English, being a highly simplified language, doesn’t have gendered nouns and so the only time you see “he” or “she” is in relation to a living creature which, until recently, must be of one of two sexes. A lot of other languages – French, German, Russian to name three – have gendered nouns whereby inanimate objects such as a book, a car, a window, and a door are referred to as “he” or “she”. In the case of Russian and German they even have nouns of a neutral gender.

Things get further complicated in French when the possessive third person pronoun takes the gender of the noun, not the person. In English we say “her book” and “his book” depending on who owns the book. In Russian it’s the same. Only in French they say “son livre” using the masculine form even if the person owning the book is a woman. Conversely, if a man owned a car you would say “sa voiture” because car is feminine.

My point is that people who grow up speaking such languages are probable more resistant to the notion that the pronoun says much about the sexual characteristics of the object in question. When a Russian says “you can park near her” referring to a hotel, nobody is going to think this is attributing sexual characteristics to the hotel, much less as a way of imposing ones traditional views of sexuality, etc. People who use these languages are more likely to see gendered pronouns as grammatical conventions and nothing more, and they probably don’t even see the oddity of things such as knives and forks having a gender in the first place.

I’d be interested to see if this controversy over gendered pronouns exists in the non-English speaking world. I am confident it doesn’t in Russia. Perhaps it does in France, but I doubt it. My guess would be that this is being driven by people who, not having the first clue about languages (including their own), are basing their entire objections on an implication that simply isn’t there.


Rasa the car and Lithuanian names

The BBC has an article on a prototype car powered by hydrogen cells made by Welsh outfit Riversimple.  They have named the car Rasa, as in “tabula rasa,” Latin for “blank slate.”

I’m not actually going to say anything about the car itself, but I will say something about the name.  If you ever meet somebody called Rasa, they will almost certainly be female and Lithuanian.  Rasa is a very common name over there, but with Lithuanians having a unique language (bearing only a slight resemblance to Latvian, but nothing else), their being few in number, and the country itself being largely unknown you don’t meet many Rasas unless you’ve been to the place itself.  The Lithuanians converted late to Christianity – don’t ask me when, but they were one of the last in Europe to do so – and their capital Vilnius has so many churches that a message saying “meet me in the coffee shop on Ausros Vartai street beside the church” isn’t very helpful at all.  Due to this late conversion, which took place mainly via bribery with (if my tour guide is telling the truth) shirts being dished out to anyone who was baptised, many of the names in use in Lithuania are of pagan origin.  Pagan names are often based on natural, physical phenomenon, and I happen to know that Rasa means “morning dew”.  And I bet you anything you like the Welshmen who built this car were unaware of the connection when these photos were taken:

While I’m on the subject and rambling away, there is another peculiarity of Lithuanian names.  A man and a woman who are married will have a masculine and feminine version of their shared surname respectively, which is common in several languages (particularly those which are Slavic based).  But whereas in Russian any son will take the father’s (masculine) surname and daughter the mother’s (feminine) surname, in Lithuanian a daughter will have a slightly different surname again, indicating that she is not married.  Via Language Hat, this post explains:

Surnames in Lithuanian end differently depending on whether it’s a man’s surname, a married woman’s or an unmarried woman’s. Men’s surnames typically end in -us, -as, or -ys, as in Paulauskas, Adamkus, Bimbirys. Their sons would inherit the father’s surname, unchanged. However, neither their wives nor their daughters would bear exactly the same name. Thus, the wife of Paulauskas would be named Paulauskiene, but their daughter would be Paulauskaite.

The -aite suffix to a Lithuanian woman’s surname is an indication that she is unmarried (there are other suffixes, but this one is very common).  Which is why, when I saw Lithuania’s president Dalia Grybauskaitė on TV, I was able to casually observe that she was unmarried.

Erm, that’s all.